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Your Guide to Collaborative Document Editing With Google Docs

Michael Reynolds

Posted by Michael Reynolds on 10/18/16 9:40 AM

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At SpinWeb, we rely on collaboration tools and productivity apps to get more done throughout the day. We use a variety of apps like Basecamp, Pivotal, Slack, and Dropbox to communicate and share files, notes, and tasks. But what about collaborative document editing? We've got you covered with this detailed how-to.

We use G Suite (formerly Google Apps for Work, aka Google Apps) and one of our favorite apps is Google Docs. As part of the apps suite, Google Docs is a word processing app for teams and it allows you to create and manage documents online very easily.

So why would you want to use Google Docs?

Simple: collaboration. I'm sure you've experienced the clunky, frustrating process of editing a Word document via email between one or more people. Track changes, forward the file in an email, accept changes, revise, email back ... etc. Who has the most recent version? Where is the most recent version? In my experience, it is the opposite of a streamlined process.

Google Docs eliminates these frustrations, and adds some really cool collaborative features that Word just doesn't have, like real-time commenting – but we'll get to that in a minute.

But, we know from experience that not everyone is on board this train. Working in a Google Doc is still unfamiliar to many people.

One issue we run up against is knowing how to invite someone to edit a Google Doc, and making sure that the person we're asking knows how to edit it. It's happened a few times – we send a Google Doc to someone (accessed by a link) only to have them save it or paste it into a Word document and send it back to us with their changes. This defeats the purpose of document collaboration, but it happens because the recipient is simply not familiar with how a Google Doc operates.

In this post, we'll discuss how to create a document, how to invite someone to edit a Google Doc, and all of the steps in between. 

How to Create a Google Doc

To create a document, you first go to your Google Drive interface. Drive is where all of your G Suite documents are stored. Once you are logged in with your Google account (either via Gmail or your Google Apps for business account) you can get to your apps in a few ways, but one easy way is to find this icon at to the top of your screen. 

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Click "Drive" and you'll see a list of all of your current documents. If you have not created any, the screen will have no documents.

To create a new doc, click on the "Create" button and you'll see some options:

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Drive has familiar file management tools, like add a new folder or upload an entire folder. From here, you can create a new document. You can also create a new spreadsheet (Sheets, similar to Excel) or presentation (Slides, similar to PowerPoint), but we'll stick with a standard document for now.

Once you create a new document, you'll see a blank page with a standard set of word processing tools at the top.

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The first thing you'll want to do is name your doc. Do this by clicking the words "Untitled document" at the top and giving it a new name. Note that it automatically saves as you go.

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Now you are ready to write! You can treat this just like a regular Word document. Type and format away.

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Additionally, your document is stored in the cloud, which means you don't have to worry about saving it to your computer or losing it. It auto-saves continuously, so all you need to do to get back to it is open your web browser, go to your Google Drive, and click on it. Easy!

Collaboration

Now that you have created a doc, it's time to see where Google Docs really shines. Let's set up a scenario that might be familiar to you. You are working on a document that requires feedback and input from others in your office. So you put together a report as a Word document and email it to a group of four other people with the note: "Please give me your changes." Each person then makes notes and changes in the doc and emails it back. Now you have five different versions that you need to consolidate back into one. Ugh!

A Google Doc eliminates this headache. All you would need to do is "share" the doc with your co-workers and ask them to make their changes directly in the same document. You are now working on one document as opposed to 5 different docs.

To do this, click on the "Share" button in the upper right.

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You will see the share screen, which presents many options. We'll go through a couple of our most frequently used share options.

1. Share With People Outside Your Company

Get shareable link: Here is a trick that will save you a TON of time, not to mention tears and headaches. If you need to share this doc with someone outside of your company, who may or may not even have a Google account, this is the place to go. Click on "get shareable link." 

share.jpegNext, you'll want to select "Anyone with the link" and below you can select the access level (can view, edit, etc).

share-settings.jpegNow, click Save. You've made the document accessible to anyone who has this particular link.

Now, copy the link and can send an email to the person or group you want to collaborate with. This feature comes in really handy when you know someone doesn't necessarily use Google Apps or they're unfamiliar with signing in to access a Google Doc.

share-link.jpeg2. Limited Sharing for Higher Security

The above example would allow anyone to access a document, provided they have the link. If you want to share a document with just a particular person and you want to guarantee no one else can access it, use this method. Just remember, you may have trouble on the other end if the person you're inviting doesn't have a Google account attached to the email you're sending to.

Make sure link sharing is set to "Off" and send to particular email addresses. You can still control access levels here, as well as send an invite and personal message directly to the individuals. Click "Send" and they will get an email notification.

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Note that if you start typing an email address that is already in your contacts list, it will auto-complete with their full name, so you can just select them from a list as you can see above. Otherwise you can just type in their entire email address. Separate multiple email addresses with a comma.

Also note that by default you are inviting people to edit the doc, although you can change access to view only. If Edit is selected, this means that the people you invite will be able to make changes. However, don't worry ... you can always undo their changes (more on that later).

So what happens now? Well, the people you invited will now get an email with a link to the doc.

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Real Time Collaboration in Google Docs

Now they can simply click on the link to go to the doc and edit it directly online. So, what does real time collaboration in Google Docs mean?

Here's the cool part: they can make all the changes they want at the same time, and every version is tracked and saved automatically. Additionally, you can compare and roll back to any earlier version you want. People can also add comments to the doc as a way of offering feedback without actually editing it.

While people are editing the doc, you can see it in real time. You will be able to see who is viewing it based on their icon in the upper right, and you can see who is making what changes in real time. Here you can see Amy is editing, and in the second image below Amy has left, but now Abby is in the document. If they were all three in there at the same time, all three icons would appear.

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How to Revert and See Revision History

If you want to see the entire revision history of the doc, go to the "File" menu and choose "See revision history."

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Then, you will be able to track every change. You will see a list of all the different versions along with time stamps and who made the changes.

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Clicking on a version will show that version of the document to you. If you want to roll back to a previous version, you can choose to "restore" that version.

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This is my favorite part about Google Docs: real-time collaboration and the flexibility to revert back to any version of the document at any time.

As you can see, using a Google Doc for collaborative editing is a very efficient process. It means that everyone is only editing one document; everyone always sees the latest version; and all changes and comments are tracked and saved. Additionally, it can be edited from tablets and mobile devices for even more flexibility.

Save In Different Formats

You or your fellow editors may download a copy of the doc in another format, like Word or PDF, at any time. Go to File and select "Download as" to export the doc in another format.

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This allows you to take the finished version and use it any way you want to.

Ways to Collaborate with Google Docs

You are probably getting an idea of all of the ways you can use this tool, but I want to share a few specific use cases from our experience. You can share docs within your own organization (via Google Apps) or you can share docs with people outside your organization, as well. 

Some ways to use this amazing tool include:

  • Gathering Feedback: Draft a memo or policy in your office that needs group feedback
  • Meeting Agendas: Create your agenda and share the link in a Calendar invite for upcoming meeting
  • Meeting Minutes: Take notes during a meeting and share doc with attendees
  • Sales Team Data: Share a Google Spreadseet with your sales team and ask them to keep it up to date with stats
  • Team Content Collaboration: Start with an outline, gather feedback from team, and keep evolving the piece you're writing.
  • Board or Committee Planning: Group work when serving on boards and committees 

The possibilities are endless. Any time you need to collaborate on a document with someone else, it's a good possibility that Google Doc is the tool you need. Some other advantages include:

  • Compatibility: It works on Mac, PC, iPad, mobile, and with no software required
  • Cloud Storage: Your document is stored in the cloud, so it's accessible anywhere and won't get lost.
  • Saves Time: Much more streamlined, since there is no need to email attachments back and forth

At SpinWeb, we find that Google Docs is a great place to keep "in-progress" stuff. We don't treat it as a permanent home for a doc; rather, we use it as a stream of working docs that may eventually be exported to a more permanant home, like Dropbox. It's a great place to collaborate and create without committing to saving a bunch of files on your computer.

I hope this has given you a good primer on the advantages of collaborating with Google Docs.

Image Credit: dennizn / Shutterstock.com

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